They always say that the difficult horses have the most to teach you. That good horses don’t make good riders and that the more times you’re thrown, the more tenacity you learn. That the top horses are always a little sensitive, a little quirky, not everyone can ride them (as Valegro nods sagely in the background whilst carrying an eleven-year-old girl around on his patient back). There’s an undercurrent of feeling where if your horse isn’t that horse that’s a little crazy, maybe you’re not that rider who can do all the hard things.
But today I’m going to tell you everything I learned from my easy, sweet and safe horse.
Sure, he’s not the best ever on outrides and he’s got a spook in him, but he’s always been a steady sort. Even as a little foal he never had those crazy little baby tantrums while trying to navigate life with humanity. He wore his first saddle without a buck and fell asleep while I was putting on his first bridle. I was 15 and knew nothing. He was 2 and patient as a monolith, even then.
He was a clotheshanger-shaped two-year-old when I sat on him for the first time. I hadn’t done one quarter of the necessary groundwork, but he just turned his head to sniff at my toe and then went to sleep.
Fast forward seven years and he is still a good boy. He has his nervous moments, but in all our years of riding, I have only once believed I was actually going to come off him. We were walking and I was mostly asleep, one hand on the buckle, when huge lizard jumped up a rock out of nowhere and he jumped. I didn’t have reins, so he cantered off a few steps as I slithered down his side, stopping when I managed to get hold of a rein and drag myself back on board. Both times that I actually did fall off him, he was 3, we were hacking, and my (unreliable) girth came off. He always came back for me.
He has a quiet mouth. He doesn’t really go lame. He has a soft, supple back that doesn’t really go into spasm. These are probably reasons why he’s easy in his mind. He’s comfortable to sit on, not particularly flashy in his gaits, and rather on the slow side.
He’s not the horse that holds a grudge or gets offended by my myriad mistakes. His chiropractor, who has a deep intuition for horses, summarized him: “Oh, you just feel like everything is going to be OK when you’re with him.”
He is my easy, sweet and gentle horse. And here is what I learned from him.
I learned to ride a flying change, a half pass, renvers, travers, piaffe. A real shoulder-in, a straight leg-yield. A good simple change. A true connection, a supple bend, and a square halt. A figure eight in rein back. I learned these while he was learning them, because he was willing to learn, because he was helping instead of hindering.
I learned that mistakes are forgivable. I learned that there is a depth of grace out there that absorbs all sin, because a droplet of that grace lives in my little bay horse.
I learned that manes are still good for crying into when you’re a grownup.
I learned how to try, to give my best even when it’s not much on the day, to rise above fear and uncertainty and to try regardless because of how this horse always tries.
I learned about the depth of what horses do for us, about the scope of their kindness, about how much better I need to be for them. I learned to put aside everything and ride for the sake of the threefold cord, for the dance, for the joy of the fact that God made horses and he made us.
I learned to find a taste of eternity in the swing of a stride. And I liked it.
I learned that even on the worst days, horses still smell like heaven.
I learned that there are few greater gifts than a stalwart friend, even if that friend has four legs and a fluffy forelock.
I learned that I do have wings after all.
I learned that we can do anything.
I learned all these things from a 15.1 hand bay gelding who doesn’t rear or buck or bolt or kick or bite or get wildly wound up about life. I learned them from an easy horse.
And I love him.
Glory to the King.
By the way, ROW is now on Instagram! Find me on @ridingonwater for daily adorable Thunder pics and bits of philosophy.
Suicide prevention awareness month is here, and this topic has been stewing in my head for a long time.
I’ve long held that horses are among the most emotionally complicated of all domestic animals; possibly the animals that come closest to our own emotions. We relate more easily to dogs, who are generally more expressive and whose body language is universally well understood. But very few of us can ever hope to attain that permanently happy outlook that seems to characterise the canine psyche. Of course dogs have phobias and develop problems with bad handling or circumstances, but on the whole, if you feed and walk and snuggle your dog enough he’s as happy as a clam.
It is yet to be determined if cats know that people have feelings. (Joke). Either way, they’ve got a pretty good handle on theirs and don’t need much of our input, thankyouverymuch.
Well cared-for cows are by default deeply content creatures; if you don’t believe me, do yourself a favour and sit among a herd of cows at dusk when they’ve all gone to bed and lie there chewing cud and contemplating the mysteries of the universe. They’re so well grounded, you’ll feel your own soul being stilled.
But horses are completely different. Horses have the ability to be unhappy even when circumstances are excellent. That sound familiar? It should, because we humans have the same ability.
So today I’m going to talk about the anxious horse and how those of us who suffer from the wide range of anxiety disorders – and, crucially, those of us close to such sufferers – can learn from them.
The most insecure horse I’ve ever handled?
This is Champagne. Champagne was brought up at a beautiful stud, from solid pony bloodlines. She was purchased by my lovely client for her gentle, experienced child, a good match for the pony in terms of personality and ability. She was taken to a well-established yard and there fairly appropriately cared for, better than most horses. Champagne has consistently been handled and cared for by good, experienced horse people.
Champagne also has a terrible case of anxiety. When faced by any of her numerous triggers, she starts to breathe in rapid, shallow flutters, punctuated by loud and ripping snorts as she desperately tries to use every sense she has to identify the threat. Her topline becomes rock hard. She is hyperreactive to any stimulus, specifically my aids, and any touch can send her deeper into the meltdown. She begins to sweat profusely and shiver violently.
The anxiety attack she had when she arrived lasted, with fluctuating severity, for almost a week.
Champagne has no “reason” to be afraid. But she is.
In contrast, this is Trooper at his first show. Trooper grew up in a township somewhere, where he spent the first two and a half years of his life half-starved. Nine horses were rescued from the same property as he was; he was the only survivor. His herdmates all died. He almost did, too, suffering from septicaemia in all four his legs and his sheath. After nursing him back to health, his rescuer sold him on to me.
Trooper is one of the most trustworthy ponies we have in the school. He is patient, kind, and never frightened by anything very much. In the field, he’s a happy and content little chap despite rejection from his herdmates, and he loves people.
Trooper has every “reason” to be afraid. But he isn’t.
You see, for Champagne, it’s all in her head. There isn’t really anything that’s going to hurt her. Cows are not out to get her. Birds do not eat horses. It’s all in her mind. And that’s a very valid and noteworthy place for something to be.
Let me repeat that. “In your head” is a very valid and noteworthy place for a problem to exist.
I was told so many times that my riding nerves were “all in my head”, or that I should “just get over it”. And you know what? So was Champagne. Her previous trainer was a better one than me by a very long shot, but when the pony spooked the trainer put her gently but firmly between leg and hand and got back to doing what she wanted. Which works for 90% of horses out there.
With the merely spooky young horse the dialogue goes like this:
Horse: Eek! What’s that? [wiggles and looks]
Rider: It’s nothing. Look, I’m not worried. Let’s do this. [Half-halts, bends the horse away from the spooky thing, reapplies the aids]
Horse: OK. [forgets the thing]
But with an anxious horse, the conversation becomes completely different.
Horse: Oh no, no, no, no, no, it’s a bird, it’s a bird, it’s going to hurt me, it’s going to hurt me! [Loses rhythm, topline becomes tense, breathing changes]
Rider: It’s nothing. Look, I’m not worried. Let’s do this. [Half-halts, bends the horse away from the spooky thing, reapplies the aids]
Now before we go into the horse’s response, let’s look at two characteristics of most deeply anxious horses that are still rideable.
They are intelligent overthinkers. Things can be blown way out of proportion in their heads because they are smart enough to imagine things and go one step further than simple animal reactions.
They are very hard triers. They generally want so much to please their riders and are well aware that spooking does not please them. These horses are exhausted from trying all day long to please people despite their struggles; when they fail, it creates a downward spiral.
So here’s what this type of horse responds with:
Horse: I can’t, I can’t, it’s going to hurt me, it’s going to hurt me but you’re saying to go past it so I’ll try but I’m so scared! [Moves forward, but with choppy steps, losing the headquarters, begins to snort]
Rider: Get over it. Come on. Don’t be silly. You’re fine. [taps lightly with the whip]
Horse: I can’t breathe. I feel funny. I can’t do this! [Freezes to the spot, tries to run backwards, holds breath]
Rider: Do it now! [Firm reapplication of aids]
Horse: [explodes – runs back, rears, spins, bucks, bolts, or all of the above]
The thing about this conversation is that both horse and rider are right. There is nothing that will hurt the horse. It is all in her head. She is fine.
But the horse is stating facts, too. The horse is genuinely terrified. The threat is not real. It doesn’t have to be. Her fear is real, and that’s valid.
Let’s go back to Champagne. In her introduction, I described her anxiety attacks as they were when she arrived. These days, faced with more than what pushed her over the edge initially, her anxiety attacks last under two minutes. Even when pushed too far (as I admit to having done by accident) I can talk her down in five minutes or less. She no longer sweats or holds her breath for extended periods. It has been weeks since she last ran backward or reared. She looks at things and then deals with them.
She’s better, and here is how I changed the conversation to try to help her.
Champagne: [sees a bird] Oh no, no, no, no, no, it’s a bird, it’s a bird, it’s going to hurt me, it’s going to hurt me!
Me: OK, love. Let’s back it right up. [Halts, goes down to walk, or even dismounts] Just pause here and have a good look. I’m right here for you. [Even when nervous myself, control my breathing. Sigh, shift the weight, keep contact with one hand on her neck. When mounted, relax the lower back and shoulders. Breathe into diaphragm].
Champagne: OK, I’ll try. I can go a little closer now, maybe. [Volunteers a step further. Sniffs at the bird.]
Me: That’s fantastic. Well done. [Gives vocal praise, keeps pressure off except for slight rein contact in case of emergencies].
Champagne: Hey, you know what, I think it’s actually fine. [Licks and chews, looks away, sighs]
Me: Good job. Shall we go back to work? [Leg on again, contact, half-halt]
Champagne: Yep, that’s cool, let’s do it. [Obeys the aids]
It’s not the heroic approach. It doesn’t look very good, I can tell you that much. My clients pay me an awful lot of money to sit on their pony scratching its neck and not doing anything for several minutes at a time. I don’t astonish anyone with my ability to sit through drama and there is no magical quick fix. The process takes months – years, even.
But there is no horse that will try harder for you than the anxious horse, who has been trying harder for you than you know.
So in honour of suicide prevention awareness month, let me say this to everyone close to someone suffering with anxiety: Thank you for trying. It can be so frustrating and heartbreaking. But please remember that you can’t really fix it. Trying to fix it will kill you. Fixing it is between that person and God. Just be the safe place, be the place where the pressure’s off, because anxiety is living under unrelenting pressure. Be the break from that.
The only reason why I can help Champagne is because, perhaps to a lesser extent, I am Champagne. (Except not so leggy and blonde). I heard all those voices telling me to get over it and that it was all in my head for so many years and it was killing me.
And then, one day, I heard that Still, Small Voice, the only One with the right to really condemn me for the way I am. And the only One Who never did. Because God stepped in, the God Who keeps me safe, the God Who gives me a spirit not of fear but of power and love and a sound mind, the God in Whom my faith should be stronger than anxiety, the God Who said so many times not to be afraid, the God Who should have thrown me aside for my doubt and disobedience – and He is the only One Who never devalued the way I feel.
God stepped in and said, “I’m here, daughter; I love you anyway; I have a plan with this; My grace is sufficient.” And because He loved me anyway, I could finally breathe and watch Him work in me again.
Let’s all change our words and speak life like Him.
Yesterday I didn’t even realise what day it was until I discovered that, despite being as single as they come, I have a Valentine.
He is all of seven years old, but he brought me chocolate. Thus, he wins.
On a more serious note, I was back at Winstead facing my demons. I really love being there, but I’ll be honest – I stood on the mounting block just staring at my steed for the day with a feeling of absolute helplessness for a few seconds. But I laid it down, and God came through for me. With the help of the wonderful Monty who is like a smaller version of Al who likes close spots (like me). We had a fantastic lesson and jumped all the things with only one panicky recitation of Psalm 23.
And just as I thought I was getting used to riding big horses, coach K put me on a creature that dwarfed the mere 16.2hh beasts I had been riding. Royale is the most incredible fancy comfy upper-level jumper thing, and I had a blast, but wow. He is big.
I also got to ride Kardinal again and he got to show me how to do good canter-walk transitions approximately four million times, poor chap.
The day ended after some lovely lessons with an absolutely splendid sky to take our breath away.
Today did not start off on as good a note when poor old Mutterer and head groom T ran out of fuel on the way here. We fed really late, but on the plus side I got a pretty picture of a view that I’ve seen so many times and never been able to photograph because I’m always driving.
Once I finally got to start the riding, Arwen gave me the opportunity to unwind a bit by taking me for a stunning hack across the fields. She dragoned a bit and got quite hot and bouncy, but didn’t buck or go nuts.
Destiny went beautifully today. He is firmly under saddle now and hasn’t been at all naughty, although he felt resistant today when I pushed for a more active walk. He gave me a happy little trot, though.
Tara also schooled well; so chilled and rhythmic, but her turn right button occasionally seems to glitch. She’s not naughty, just keeps merrily going straight while you would really rather turn right. We had improvement by the end.
I schooled Jamaica over a 75cm vertical, the biggest I’ve jumped him, with a ground line set the height of the fence away from the base. Neither Maica nor I are any good at seeing a distance and this exercise really helped. He also seemed impressed by the fence and didn’t take a single pole.
I rode the same exercise on Starlight, just rather smaller. She has improved hugely under her mom’s schooling and has such a powerful little jump.
Faithy and I went walkies, to her delight. Faithy adores walkies and pulls all the way out and all the way back. She’s spooky but super curious, and in her world, separation anxiety ain’t no thing.
Midas, Sunè and Lancelot all had flatwork this afternoon and all did great. Midey feels so ready for HOY I can taste it. Sunè’s left turn doesn’t always happen gracefully in canter, but at least she’s got leads and connection now. And Lancey learns slowly (not for lack of intelligence, but for lack of attention), but he grasped lengthening his canter beautifully today.
Gasp! How could you say that? Obviously only [insert guru here]’s Miracle Way of the Horse is the only right way to do [insert training obstacle/goal here], which of course you can’t accomplish without [$$$$$ glorified lunging whip/bitless bridle/neck strap], and all other ways are Wrong.
Bitting up is Wrong. Bitless is Wrong. Draw reins are Wrong. Whips are Wrong (but not carrot sticks or whatever). Or maybe the One True Way involves a magic gadget of magicalness. And don’t even think about deviating from the training scales!
Um, guys. How many horses do you know that read Principles of Riding or watch YouTube?
The funny thing about these methods is they all work. For certain people and certain horses in certain circumstances, they work. The better ones work for the vast majority of horses. But nobody would be peddling these methods, or accepting them for hundreds of years, if they didn’t work.
There are only two wrong ways. The way that really hurts somebody (equine or human), and the way that doesn’t work.
Take Magic, for instance. Magic will curl up, flip his head, invert and flail to the best of his ability if subjected to the horrible cruelty of an apple mouth snaffle. I did the Wrong thing and bitted him up to a Kimberwick. He almost instantly transformed into a horse that could go forward into a steady contact in a relaxed and more or less graceful manner (most of the time).
This horse had been trained (badly) for polo and was the most extreme case of head up = adrenalin up I have ever seen. Her rhythm and tempo were appalling and she had no concept of suppleness until one day she nearly broke my nose with her permanently raised head, so I put a martingale on in the interests of my nasal well-being. She put her head down and suddenly she could float and bend and relax. We turned the training pyramid on its head, starting with something a little like connection, which is Wrong. She is now being a riding school pony that competes in dressage with kids. It was Wrong but it worked for Flare.
Liana had similar problems to Flare, being extremely tense with a very high head carriage and tiny, piggy little strides. Her flatwork sucked so I did only jumping and relaxed hacking for nearly six months. Which is Wrong. Everyone knows you need to have solid flatwork before you can jump. But Liana adores jumping. She became so relaxed and happy over fences that when we returned to flatwork, she was suddenly and magically a dressage horse.
So my horses got happier and better thanks to my incorrect training, but that doesn’t make the training scale wrong.
I trained Nell according to convention and she earns her highest scores for the basics and her lowest for connection, as according to the training scales. It worked for her, and for Arwen and Whisper and Sookie and Reed and half a dozen other furballs I trained “properly”.
OK, so how about starters? Surely a clean slate should always come out the same way when a certain method is applied?
Bruno was fresh off the veld – cleanest slate you could find. I never did Join-Up or desensitisation on this pony. I started him bareback and spent most of my initial groundwork just hand grazing him, and he’s a relaxed, happy, obedient, responsive and laid-back ride.
With Quinni, on the other hand, I did practically everything by the book – Join-Up, despooking, pressure-release exercises, the works. She is also a happy, relaxed, responsive horse to ride.
Ultimately it is very easy to get bogged down in a method or a way. We all say we train dressage, or soft feel, or Parelli or whatever. But realistically, we all train something Handmade – a unique, created being that, just like us all, has emotions and quirks and sensitivities and vices and scars and secrets and baggage.
With Bruno and Lancelot being well started, nevertheless I haven’t run out of unbacked babies. I have a queue of starters waiting for me (two Appaloosas, an Arab, a rather interesting crossbred, a Welsh pony and Exavior himself – and those are just the ones actually at the yard) but I have only so many rides in me every week, so right now I’m working on two of the loveliest grey ladies in the world.
This is Olive, our first draft at the yard. She is a bit of a crossbred but there is a whole lot of Percheron there, which makes her fluffy and huge with extra helpings of adorable. She arrived in June with only very basic work done – a bit of halter training and a lot of friendliness towards people – and has made good progress.
True to draft form, she is the sweetest thing on four legs, which has made her trainable despite not being the sharpest knife in the drawer. We started out with basic lunging, where she proved much more forward-going than I expected of such a big floof,
and now we have moved on to the roller and desensitisation and pressure-release exercises and finally, weight. (Although I don’t think my mass compared to Olive’s can really be called “weight”.)
As expected from a homebred, she was pretty cool about being desensitised and not bad about weight. It took a few sessions for her to stop mouthing the bit incessantly, but I finally reverted to an old trick I learned from the Mutterer (AKA king of starting youngsters) and just left her in the round pen with the bridle on for half an hour. With all her brainpower free to figure out this new question, she was relaxed about it by the time I returned and we haven’t had a hitch since.
The second starter is the drop-dead-gorgeous Quinni.
Quinni is impeccably bred, with some of the best Nooitgedachter blood in history blended with her Anglo-Arab sire to create one of the nicest young horses I have ever seen. She is drool-worthy from her impressive size and conformation to her wonderful floatiness. Add in a dash of cuteness, a high IQ and a darling personality, and you have me sold.
Sadly for me, although I am casually on the lookout for a fancy dressage horse, I am broke and Quinni is older than what I was looking for. Also, her owner is set on keeping her for a broodmare, a decision which I wildly applaud. Lots of baby Quinnis running around can only be a good thing.
This has not prohibited me from enjoying my time with her. We had a bit of a sticky start when she came down with a horrific acute biliary, but she’s a fighter and kicked that bug with a vengeance. I had started her on the lunge and popped a saddle on her at her breeder’s, so she bounced back quickly from her illness and waltzed through her groundwork without apparent effort. The horse is naturally balanced, intelligent, eager to please and sensitive – what more could you ask for? I was expecting a little fireworks when I sat on her the first time, as she does have that sensitive streak that can cause issues during starting, but I needn’t have worried. Her first three rides were among the easiest I have ever had on a baby.
After getting thrown from Dirkie last year I truly thought it would be more than a year before I pulled myself together enough to get back on a baby, especially a bigger baby like these two. But of course, God is faithful and the power of Christ is in me.
[Side note: I will write a brief recap of June at some point, I really will. Bad blogger! But for today, here’s some drivel that’s been floating around in my head for a while.]
My own riding has me a little disheartened lately. I have never been the most confident rider or someone that finds riding easy, but I have always been ambitious. And lately, that’s led to a whole lot of disappointment.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t trying my guts out to get better at this. I was the kid that was forever drawing pictures of her first pony winning the Olympics. I’ve had goals and plans and lofty dreams all my life; since I was seven years old I would watch the pros on TV, then close my eyes and picture me riding that perfect 1.60m course or Grand Prix freestyle on old Skye. I want it so bad I can taste it. It’s not really about the victory, I just have this craving to be so good at it. I really want to feel what it’s like to ride a 10 for a half-pass. I really want to go double clear at 4* with the grace of a dancer. And I’ve been working for that since I can remember. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t riding at least 6 days a week, and since I was 12, that’s been multiple horses a day. That’s a lot of saddle time and a lot of blood and sweat and tears, and all I have on my show record is one grading point at Novice, one at 70cm, and one at EV70. I have been eliminated repeatedly and dramatically in every discipline I ride in with the exception of dressage, and I know that’s only a matter of time. The only graded classes I’ve won have been ones where I was the only one that showed up, barring one, where my 8-year-old was competing against a real greenie. It’s not exactly the kind of show record you expect from a trainer, much less a coach. Horse riding takes years, this I know, but at every show I see juniors and pony riders doing medium and 1.20m and EV100 and they’re winning.
The last thing I can blame is the horses, because I have some really, really incredible horses. These horses have more scope and talent than I do, and they try their courageous hearts out for me.
And that is kind of discouraging sometimes because I have many shortcomings, but lack of drive is not one of them. Every year, I ride more horses, I take more lessons. I ride when I’m sick and hurting, I ride in the rain and the cold, I get back on over and over. For the last six months of 2015, I have 569 sessions recorded in my logbook, and I ride a lot more now than I did then. I did my stint as a working student and I did my share of falling off wild ponies for peanuts. I have never quit on riding, not once; the longest I have gone in my memory without riding has been two weeks – the two weeks that Magic was sick. And sometimes it’s like it’s just not achieved anything. And that was so painful and confusing. I keep wanting to ask God what I did wrong. Why hasn’t He taken me up the grades? What have I missed? Where did I mess up? Is this not His plan for me after all? Why don’t I have anything to show for it on paper?
And God said, “I wasn’t looking on paper, daughter.”
He opened my eyes to what really matters and it hasn’t been the destination or the dreams I’ve been chasing. It’s been the things that matter to Him, the things He has been calling me to all this time, this time that I’ve been trying to follow His light through the dark glass of my own ambition.
Because looking back, the changes in my horses’ training and ability haven’t been huge. But the changes in their minds and emotions? They have been enormous.
When I got this horse he was relatively fresh off the track, but he could walk and trot and canter and whoa and go and turn and pop over little crosses. Almost four years later, he’s doing 70cm with mixed results. You know how long it takes a pro to take a baby off the track to 70cm? We’re not even using the same calendar here.
But when I got him he was also a hypersensitive, neurotic creature you couldn’t sneeze near or his brain would exit stage left. You literally could not move your hands too fast or he’d jump up in the air like you’d hit him with a cattle prodder. He was anxious to box, he was anxious to saddle, he didn’t tie up, and his frequent and relentless panic attacks would have him a trembling, eye-rolling, lip-poking, leaping mess for an incredible amount of time. If something set him off, he’d literally be highly strung for days afterwards – days. He wasn’t just a silly baby off the track, he had horse PTSD. When his switch flipped, you could forget it, you weren’t getting him back that day. Maybe not even the next.
You know he’s now one of the quietest horses to handle at the yard? You can park him wherever, chuck his lead rein over his neck and he’ll just stand there looking adorable while you flap around looking for his boots. He ties up. He loads like a charm. He travels perfectly. He doesn’t hide from rain anymore, he runs and bucks and plays in it. He is just this giant happy puppy dog of a horse. Magic still has his edge, he’ll always have his edge. Like humans, horses get some scars that won’t ever heal perfectly. He still has all the same triggers and they still set him off just as quickly, but I can talk him down off his ledge in minutes. Minutes. Yesterday we had an off-site lesson and something set him off and he stopped at this 20cm cavaletti and I ate a little dirt, but I got back on him and in 30 minutes we were jumping the biggest fences we’ve ever done off property. He was so happy. He was just cruising. And I am his anchor. Nobody else in the world right now would have gotten him back so quickly, nobody else can ride him like I can. And it’s not that I’m a good rider. I’m not even a good trainer and I’m really no good at baby racehorses. But I am the world’s leading authority on Magic because I really truly care about him and that’s turned him right around. Magic does not care that we’re only doing 70cm. Magic cares that his spinning world has stilled. Magic cares about cookies and ear rubs and that I never, ever push him past what he can’t handle, even if that means we’ll do 70cm until I’m 40.
Magic cares about the love in me, and we all know that the other name for love is God. And if you put it like that, I’d take it over A-grade any day.
He hasn’t been the only one. Arwen was a promising but unbacked two-year-old. She is now a nine-year-old that gets extravagantly eliminated at EV70. But she was also a skittish, insecure, lazy, excessively herdbound filly. Now she is a wonderful, confident, enthusiastic fireball of a horse that loves galloping away from home on outrides and kicking the butts of anyone who thinks they can stop her.
Nell was hypersensitive, resistant, and amazingly spooky. Her first dressage tests are a long string of 3’s and 4’s with comments like “tense” and “very uncertain”. Now she comes down that centreline like she owns it and judges call her “obedient” and “willing”.
There have been still more. Horses you couldn’t touch, now shoving their noses into your hands, asking for attention. Horses that leaned on all your aids, wringing their tails with frustration, now stepping forward with an easy, swinging, enthusiastic stride. Horses that were so tense they had their ears up your nostrils and jumped at every touch, now packing nervy kids around at shows.
My horses are not particularly well-schooled horses. I am not “one to watch”. I am not the next Charlotte Dujardin or Monty Roberts. But after enough of my work, my horses are really, really happy, healthy, relaxed, enthusiastic, confident horses. They love their work.
One of Nell’s first dressage tests, when she was jumping like a gazelle and my heart was sitting somewhere in my boots, holds the greatest compliment I have ever received as a rider. “Empathetically ridden.” And I have my impatient days, but I do everything I can to understand these most wonderful of God’s creatures.
I don’t think it matters to the Olympic committee, or to anyone that reads my show record, or to prospective clients. None of the top riders I see at shows notice me for it and it definitely doesn’t win me any ribbons. But it matters to me, it matters to the horses, and it sure matters to God.
So yeah, I would still love to ride Grand Prix and I’m still going to work hard and dream and God willing someday a happy athlete will carry me down the centreline at a collected canter. But mostly, I’m just going to love my horses and my people. Jesus loves when I do that, and it’s the only thing I can do that has any real consequence. All the rest is just fluff. And fluff is cool, but it’s still just fluff.
I love my horses. Nobody can ever take that away from me. And for God, that’s enough. So right now, I’m deciding that it’s enough for me, too.
Magic went to his second graded show; I made a whoopsie in the first class and landed feet-first in the oxer. Then I made exactly the same whoopsie in the second class and landed bum-first in the combination. Apparently one shouldn’t drop Magic at the scariest fence on course. Who knew, right?
Poor old Magic was unphased, albeit somewhat confused about why Mom had so suddenly dismounted. After a lesson and a mild scolding from my coach about the fact that perfect horses must be ridden perfectly, we went to a training show in May and jumped two perfectly clear rounds without batting an eyelash.
My confidence suffered only the most minor of knocks. Magic is that one horse that always has me smiling – even in this shot taken in the second class of our disastrous show.
Arwen went to Nooitie Nationals and proceeded to win every class she entered.
The showjumping. The dressage.
The pairs. And then, National Champion in hand.
The only thing she didn’t win was the show riding, which she could have if she hadn’t had a violent head flip in the rein back. Well, we won’t be showing a rein back again… despite getting a 6.5 on the same movement in dressage.
Nell also went to Nationals and raked in her fair share of ribbons. She won her in-hand class,
the pairs, one of her two dressage tests, and the novice show hunter.
Then in May we went to Hollyberry Hall for the third leg of the YHPS and completed with 64%. As usual, we were dead last, but considering that the second-to-last horse had 64.1%, I won’t complain; she’s a pony with a green rider and she’s standing her ground amongst the best. Also, that’s a 4% increase from our last YHPS. I’ll take it!
Exavior was turned out to pasture to await being gelded, whereupon he will be brought back into work and backed. He put on an inch to reach 16.0 hands and became more gorgeous than ever.
The pregnant fairies, Cherry and Milady, continue to glow with pregnancy. Milady was briefly brought back into work when she had a client interested in her and behaved impeccably for a 6yo thoroughbred that had been out of work for half a year, but sadly it was not to be. Or not sadly. I still get a cute baby in October, so maybe we shouldn’t complain too loud.
Bruno went to his first show at Nationals and took everything in his stride. He loaded, travelled, and behaved perfectly. He only did in-hand, during which he was so relaxed that the ring steward had to hit him with a clipboard to make him trot up. Later in the weekend I hacked him around an empty warmup arena and he barely bothered to waggle his giant ears. He also did a few lessons with the smaller kiddies that are just off the lead and trotting on the lunge line. Albeit having slightly erratic steering, he proved to be as safe as a house and his slow steady rhythm was perfect for the tiny tots.
Lancelot had his first ride, a momentous occasion that turned out to be a non-event. He was very stuck with going forward when asked, but followed the Head Groom around with myself on his back without batting an eyelash. I was chagrined; I had expected some craziness from him, but he was as quiet as they come.
Big old Sookie’s tripping improved, so we were able to move on to cantering. Her transitions were truly dreadful (ever tried flailing *and* being crooked *and* almost falling *and* crashing onto the forehand all at once?) but the canter itself is her best quality gait. We also shipped her out to Hollyberry Hall for a schooling session when we took Nell; she loaded great and travelled fairly well (a little anxious but very well behaved). At the Hall I took the precaution of lunging her – she is huge and I still don’t quite trust her not to fall on her nose if she decides to jump or spin – but it wasn’t necessary. She was looky, but sane, controllable, and totally nonviolent despite being in a big and quite spooky indoor. Good Sookie!
Whisper had her photo shoot done and was snapped up in short order. Before she went, we progressed to cantering on the correct lead and then to jumping. We even took her to her first show and did ground poles. The organisation and layout was terrible, so the round didn’t go too well, but despite being severely anxious Whisper didn’t get violent once. That’s a truly safe horse right there.
Finally, Liana jumped her first 70cm under me and came sixth in a massive class. In May, she also jumped her first 80cm with me and took a couple of poles but was brave to every fence.
Then she did another 60 and 70cm at Nationals with her kid, snagging the National Champion Showjumper title without apparent effort.
She rounded off the show by jumping her first working hunter round, where she had a spot of bother at the straw bales but did not appear at all phased by the banks.
Another chaotic month at Morning Star Stables, and all our adventures for the glory of our King.